Team Turmoil (LSU) is also the best team

October, 22, 2011
10/22/11
10:54
PM ET

BATON ROUGE, La. -- It’s been a chaotic season off the field for LSU.

It’s been even more chaotic for those teams who’ve had to face the No. 1 Tigers on the field.

They’ve gone from just beating teams to punishing teams. It doesn’t matter if key players are suspended for failing drug tests, suspended while fighting legal matters or simply injured and unable to play.

This purple and gold steamroller just keeps mashing, and on Saturday at Tiger Stadium, it was defending national champion Auburn that happened to be in the way.

LSU, playing without three suspended players and two others who were injured, never flinched in turning in its most complete performance of the season in a 45-10 win over No. 20 Auburn.

“We still had a chip on our shoulder from the way they ran on us last year with Cam Newton,” said LSU sophomore safety Eric Reid, referring to Auburn’s 440 rushing yards last season in a 24-17 win. “We were going to go out and be physical.”

It wasn’t just on defense, either.

Several explosive hits by LSU players on Auburn kickoff returns sent shudders throughout the crowd.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKenny Hilliard rushed for two touchdowns and 65 yards while filling in for Spencer Ware.
And then there was true freshman running back Kenny Hilliard, a 240-pound bruiser filling in for the suspended Spencer Ware. Hilliard, who’d carried the ball just five times all season coming into the game, pounded his way to 65 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.

“We don’t just have guys who go in and fill a spot,” LSU center T-Bob Hebert said. “We have guys who can go in and dominate. That’s the way this team has been built.”

LSU’s defense sacked Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley six times and held Auburn to 87 rushing yards on 34 attempts. Senior cornerback Ron Brooks, making his second career start and filling in for the suspended Tyrann Mathieu, returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown.

“They got winded in the third quarter,” said LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, who had two of LSU’s six sacks. “We had to turn up the pressure and take the wheel away from them.”

In their last five games, three of those coming against nationally-ranked teams, the Tigers (8-0, 5-0) have outscored their opponents by a combined 206-56 margin. And in the last four games, no team has scored more than a one touchdown against them in any game.

And, yet, the drama off the field just keeps on keeping on.

The bombshell this past week was that Tharold Simon, Mathieu and Ware had all been suspended after testing positive for synthetic marijuana. They were not at the game Saturday and didn’t practice with the team during the week week.

Reid said he talked to the players and that they expressed remorse.

“They were disappointed in themselves and said they knew they had to make smarter decisions because when they do things like that, it hurts this team and they’re a part of our team,” Reid said. “I think they’ll be back, and we’re going to keep it that way.”

LSU coach Les Miles didn’t want to talk about any of the suspended players, but reminded everybody that a team is about a lot more than just a few players.

“It’s never about a single player. It’s never about a single coach,” Miles said. “It’s about the strengths and abilities of the sum.”

Asked specifically if Ware, Mathieu and Simon would be back in two weeks against Alabama, Miles said, “I’ve got to be real honest with you. I probably know the answer to that, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

What he did want to talk about was a team that has navigated its way to the doorstep of the most anticipated game of the season in college football and has done so despite one crisis after another off the field.

In addition to the suspensions of Ware, Mathieu and Simon, junior center P.J. Lonergan (ankle) and senior defensive end Kendrick Adams (knee) were two other starters that didn’t play.

But, then, these Tigers are used to the drama.

Quarterback Jordan Jefferson missed the first four games after being arrested in connection with the bar brawl back during the preseason. Receiver Russell Shepard missed the first three games because of an NCAA matter.

And if that’s not enough, Steve Kragthorpe gave up the offensive coordinator duties in August after announcing that he had Parkinson’s disease.

“We all understand how special this season can be. We have a special thing going with a special group of guys, and we don’t want anything to ruin it,” said LSU senior quarterback Jarrett Lee, who finished 14-of-20 and threw a pair of touchdown passes, one of those a 46-yarder to Rueben Randle in the final seconds of the first half to make it a 21-3 game at the break.

Auburn (5-3, 3-2) didn’t score its only touchdown until the final minutes of the game after LSU had built a 45-3 lead.

By then, the LSU fans had long since started the “We want Bama” chant.

The game is still two weeks away and both teams are off next week. But several of the LSU players admitted that it was almost a relief to finally be able to focus on a game the rest of the country has been focusing on for a month.

“It’s going to be a game for big boys only,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery. “We’ve taken care of our business, and now it’s here.

“Everybody has bought into the dream, and when everybody buys into the dream, that’s when you get national championships.”

Chris Low | email

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